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Nancy Morton advises her fellow Americans not to believe the hype about Bill Clinton's presidential victory

Why Clinton won

Let's get a couple of things straight. Despite what the media says, Bill Clinton has not won a popular mandate for any radical programme of change. Nor is he about to lead America into a new golden age. Things will be different: but for many Americans, life under the Clinton presidency is likely to be even harder than it was under George Bush.

Clinton's success in defeating the Republicans was a big breakthrough for the Democrats, who had won only one of the previous six presidential elections. However his much-vaunted 'mandate for change' looks shaky, even in narrow electoral terms. Despite the highest turnout of voters since 1972, 45 per cent of eligible adults - some 85m people - didn't bother to take up the offer. America has the highest abstention rate in the industrialised world.

Mr 24 per cent

Among those who did vote, Clinton won 43 per cent compared to the 57 per cent who voted either for Bush or Ross Perot. That gave the Democratic Party's president-elect the support of under 24 per cent of those Americans eligible to vote. It was hardly a popular landslide.

If the electoral arithmetic doesn't quite sustain Clinton's claim to a popular mandate, the notion that his political programme captured the hearts and minds of the American people is entirely unfounded. Clinton did not win a positive endorsement. He won because many Americans (including those backing Perot) voted negatively, against the incumbent Bush and the Republicans.

Why did so many people reject Bush this time around? All of the pundits seem to agree that the depressed state of the American economy was the major factor. 'It's the economy, stupid' read the legend hung on the wall of Clinton's campaign HQ. This was partly a response to Bush's attempt to revive the glories of the Gulf War in the early stages of the presidential race, and partly a reminder to the Clinton camp to focus their attack on the issues of jobs, bankruptcies, healthcare and pensions. Everybody now says that this was the key to Clinton's success, as Bush paid the price for presiding over a slump.

The recession has indeed had a devastating impact on the US economy and the lives of many Americans. Yet why should this necessarily lead them to vote for Clinton? As John Major can testify, an economic slump is no reason why the leader of a traditional conservative party should lose an election, particularly when his opponent offers no distinctive alternative policy in the economic sphere.

No more Cold War

Over the past two decades, many Americans who were worried about the economy would have been more likely to trust the Republicans to turn things around. The most important change this time was not in the economy, but in politics. The Republicans have lost the political authority and coherence which made them pre-eminent in recent times. That was why people's economic fears took the form of an anti-Bush vote. This political shift is largely a consequence of the end of the Cold War.

Cold War ideology created the political framework within which the Republicans could easily defeat the Democrats in the last three presidential elections. First Ronald Reagan and then George Bush was able to polarise debate around a package of issues, like crime, terrorism and Soviet expansion, which were all underpinned by the 'us and them' mentality of Cold War politics. The result was to put American liberals on the defensive, and distract from other domestic problems such as poverty and unemployment. The Democrats were routed.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and crumbling of the old world order has changed all that. It means that an issue like the economic slump is more likely to be seen in its own terms, rather than being distorted through the prism of Cold War politics. The Republican Party's capacity to win by polarising things in the old way, around the old issues, has been badly undermined.

Contrast the fate of Bush's propaganda campaigns in the 1988 and 1992 elections, and the change of climate becomes clear. Four years ago, the Bush campaign went for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in classic baiting style. Bush declared war on 'the L-word' - liberal - while the infamous advertisements about Willie Horton depicted Dukakis as soft on black rapists. Bush won easily.

No New Deal

This time, when the going got rough, the Republicans tried a similar line of attack. Clinton was portrayed as a womaniser without 'family values', as anti-American, as a man with past links to the Kremlin and the KGB. But it made little impression in the polls. The Republican right launched its 'cultural war' to try to recreate the atmosphere of the Cold War. It only succeeded in making the Republicans seem ludicrous and out of date, and in alienating the uncommitted. Where Dukakis had been crushed by the power of Cold War politics, Clinton emerged as the first post-Cold War president of the USA.

It is important to appreciate that Clinton's victory reflected a negative reaction against the remnants of the past, rather than a positive endorsement of his plans for the future. Those who claim that he has won a popular mandate for his policies of radical change miss the point about how little Clinton has promised to do for the majority of American people. His commitment to salvaging American capitalism from the slump means that, for millions, the future looks even grimmer than the present.

Clinton's vague programme of economic action and welfare reform has been hailed by many as a model of how government intervention can combat the slump. Clinton's 'New Covenant' has been carefully named to conjure up images of the New Deal with which Democratic president Franklin D Roosevelt sought to end the Depression of the 1930s. But the comparison stops at the word 'new'.

FDR's New Deal involved a massive injection of state funds into the American economy, at a time when government investment on such a scale was unheard of. Even that was insufficient to cope with mass unemployment and poverty. Clinton's pale imitation can achieve far less today.

The proposal to spend $20 billion a year for four years on infrastructure investment might sound impressive. But $20 billion will add just one per cent to the massive total which the US authorities already spend in a year. It is hard to see why that relatively small shot in the arm should make much difference to an American economy which is already doped up to the eyeballs with state spending.

Clinton's spending plans are held in check by the massive government budget deficit, which is currently adding another $325 billion a year on to a total debt of some $4 trillion. The president-elect has pledged to halve the deficit in four years. Whatever new spending there is will go to help business. The American people, meanwhile, are in for hard times of austerity and cutbacks.

Clinton's approach to welfare sums up his economic priorities. He denounces the idea of 'government handouts' and says that 'if people don't work if they can work, they shouldn't eat'. His plan is that people should get low-paid job training and welfare money for no longer than two years. After that, they have to find a job. If they cannot, their money will be cut off, and they will be press-ganged into a 'community service' labour scheme.

Clinton's emphasis on individual responsibility has more in common with Reaganism than with traditional Democratic liberalism. He asks Americans to be concerned about 'not just placing blame but...assuming responsibility'. In other words, it's down to the individual to pull himself up. This theme runs through all of his vague policy statements to date.

Clinton's education plans include fining parents who don't attend the regular meetings of their Parent Teacher Association. He would link college loans to community service, and plans a sort of domestic task force to deal with teenagers who drop out of school. In his home state of Arkansas, this 'help' involved prohibiting drop-outs from getting a driver's licence, something tantamount to making it impossible for them to earn a living. The bottom line in Clinton's America is that if you can't get a job, or your children get a poor quality education, it's largely your own fault.

Bad to worse

Much has been made of how Clinton's relative youth, his baby-boomer sensibility and his talented wife, Hillary, will make for better government. But remember how Bush was going to create a kinder, gentler America post-Reagan, or how that nice Mr Major was going to change Britain for the better after Margaret Thatcher? In reality, the combination of economic slump and political exhaustion today ensures that, regardless of the personalities involved, every capitalist government makes things even worse than its predecessor. America is certainly in for some changes under Clinton. But they won't be what the pundits expect.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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